BlogBusinessCultureHow the Concept of Kaizen Has Shaped Japanese Work Culture

How the Concept of Kaizen Has Shaped Japanese Work Culture

My very first client, when I started working in advertising, was Toyota. On my first day at work, I was introduced to the Japanese concept of Kaizen as the cornerstone of their business philosophy. It even has a deep history in our own values at LEXIGO, as you’ll soon find out. Continual improvement seemed like an easy enough concept to understand but in reality, there is so much more to it.

What exactly is Kaizen? Where did it come from? And how has it shaped Japanese work culture? Take a deep dive into this Japanese business philosophy with us and learn how you can use the Kaizen method to improve your business.

What is Kaizen?

The Japanese word Kaizen is broken up into “Kai” which means “Change” and “Zen” which means “Good”. It literally translates to “Good Change” or “Change for Good,” but, as we know in the translation space, you can’t always take the exact translation of a word.

It is better explained as “Change for the better,” which is how Toyota, the Japanese company that has popularized the concept of Kaizen, explains it. This definition has evolved and is now a philosophy of continuous improvement, focused on small changes implemented everywhere, every day, and with everyone at your company, that can add up to significant results over time.

The core philosophy behind Kaizen is simple: you can always make or do things better, even if they seem to work well in a particular moment, and all problems should be seen as opportunities to improve things.

The History Behind Kaizen

The Kaizen concept can be traced back to the Japanese car manufacturer, the Toyota Motor Corporation, which implemented Kaizen principles in its production process, introducing lean manufacturing to the world, which has helped them become one of the most successful companies in the world.

Kaizen was first practised in Japanese companies after the Second World War, influenced in part by American business and management consultants. Post World War II, American management consultants visited Japan to study agricultural production problems and other issues in the country that were damaged by the war.

W. Edwards Deming and other experts collaborated with Japanese business managers to come up with new ways to increase productivity in manufacturing and improve product quality for the consumer. They came up with the idea of quality circles, where quality control is put more directly into the hands of line workers. This concept was further developed by the Japanese into the Plan > Do > Check > Act (PDCA) Cycle, which is still one of the essential tools of the Kaizen Method today (more on that later).

Toyota introduced quality circles in the 1950s as part of its manufacturing process. These quality control circles consisted of groups of employees with the same (or similar) role(s) who would get together regularly to define, analyse, and find solutions to issues related to their work. This eventually led to the development of Toyota’s unique “Toyota Production System,” also known as “The Toyota Way,” which they still use today.

Their lean manufacturing system integrated Just-in-Time inventory management as well, which aims to match production to demand by only supplying goods that have already been ordered, and focuses on efficiency, productivity and waste reduction.

“Kaizen, or continuous improvement, is the hallmark of the Toyota Production System. The primary objectives are to identify and eliminate “Muda,” or waste in all areas, including the production process. Kaizen also strives to ensure quality and safety. Its key elements emphasise making a task simpler and easier to perform, re-engineering processes to accommodate the physical demands on team members, increasing the speed and efficiency of the work process, maintaining a safe work environment, and constantly improving the product quality.” – From Toyota Production System Terminology on their Georgetown website – Nov 2003

When the Kaizen method was first introduced, it was seen as a way for Japanese businesses to compete with their counterparts in Western countries. It quickly became an integral part of Japanese working culture, and is still used by Toyota, Honda, Sony, Canon and Nissan, among other automotive, technology, and manufacturing companies.

In the 1980s, partly due to the book, “Kaizen: The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success” by Masaaki Imai, the Kaizen approach began to gain attention in the West.

Today, the Kaizen philosophy has been adopted by Japanese organisations, as well as foreign companies, in multiple sectors. It’s used in various industries, including education, healthcare and government.

The Kaizen system has been credited with a positive change in work processes, management practices, waste reduction, as well as total quality management.

The Principles of Kaizen

Kaizen is built on five main principles fundamental to any application of the Kaizen philosophy. These principles are:

Know Your Customer

Knowing who you’re selling your product to allows you to identify your customer’s interests to enhance their overall experience and add value to their interaction with you or your product.

Let it Flow

This principle’s goal is achieving zero waste, an impossible goal but that is the point of Kaizen. If you could achieve perfection, then improvement would stop. At its core, this principle means everyone in your organisation should aim to create value and eliminate waste.

Go to Gemba

Gemba translates to “the real place.” In this context, it’s about leadership knowing what is happening at every level of the organisation. It’s about following the action as value is created where something is actually happening. That’s where you want to be.

Empower People

This principle is directed towards teams and having them organised in a way that supports the principles of Kaizen. Leaders should set clear goals for their teams that are not contradictory and they should offer a system and tools to help the teams achieve these goals.

Be Transparent

Data is the strongest determining factor and is the metric that measures success. Performance and improvements must be tracked with real data, showing tangible and visible results.

Kaizen at Work

Within the Kaizen method are tools that can be implemented to help companies strive for continuous improvement. We’ve chosen a few of these tools that can help businesses get to the root cause of their challenges, measure the impact of change in a data-driven way, and standardise the new way of doing things.

The 5 Whys Analysis

The first technique, called the “5 Whys Analysis,” aims to identify the root cause of the problem. The premise is quite simple. Repeat the question “Why?” at least five times, until you find the root cause. This interrogative technique is part of the Toyota Production System and is an essential approach to problem-solving.

“The basis of Toyota’s scientific approach is to ask why five times whenever we find a problem … By repeating why five times, the nature of the problem, as well as its solution, becomes clear.” Taiichi Ohno

The PDCA Cycle

The second technique, which we briefly covered above, is called the “PDCA Cycle.” The PDCA Cycle is a system for continual improvement.

P for Plan is about finding problems and preparing a plan.

D for Do is about implementing and testing different solutions.

C for Check is about analysis, reflection, and introspection.

A for Act is about final implementation and standardisation.

In practice, the PDCA cycle can look like this:

  • In the P stage, getting team members and employees involved to identify problems and brainstorm solutions for the problems that present the greatest opportunity.
  • In the D stage, creating pilot programs, test runs, or other types of experiments, in a controlled environment, to test the solution and measure the impact.
  • In the C stage, measuring the success of the solution based on the agreed metrics and preparing a detailed analysis of what works best.
  • In the A stage, implementing and standardizing the best solution that has met all expectations.

The 5S System

The third technique is called the 5S system, which is essentially a 5-step system. The 5 S’s stand for:

  • Seiri/Sort – This step involves sorting through items in the workplace and getting rid of anything unnecessary in order to make it easier to find things.
  • Seiton/ Set in Order – This refers to setting up an orderly system for organising and storing items that are needed in the workplace.
  • Seiso/ Shine – This stage is all about cleaning the workplace. Cleaning the workplace allows for a more pleasant working environment and makes it easier to spot problems or potential hazards.
  • Seiketsu/ Standardisation – This step is all about establishing standard work procedures for performing tasks in the workplace. It helps to improve efficiency and quality as it ensures that everyone is doing things the same way.
  • Shitsuke/ Sustain – This fifth and final step is all about how to maintain the improvements that have been made. It aims to make sure that the system is kept in place and that the changes become part of the normal way of doing things.

The 5S system might sound like it’s only effective in a warehouse or factory setting but it can be applied to any area of a business. By following these 5 steps, businesses can make significant changes over time that improve the efficiency, effectiveness and safety of their operations.

How We Use Kaizen at LEXIGO

LEXIGO was created with a set of distinct values in mind to help us grow and evolve as a brand and as a business. Kaizen is a key part of that with one of our values being “Evolving.” We constantly question what is comfortable in the pursuit of what is better.

The first example of this came with our name. Not many know this but LEXIGO started as ANECSYS and while we were growing, clients and customers had trouble with the name ANECSYS. We took that as an opportunity to evolve the brand into something better, introducing LEXIGO which has been our namesake for over 12 years.

We started our business in translation but have expanded to serve our clients better with multicultural marketing, creating a new department within our company to deliver on a gap in the market and in our own business.

We created an AI-powered program that all our translation work goes into that remembers common terms and phrases in-language that our clients and brands use. This tech helps our translators by remembering key phrases used by brands. It also helps our clients by ensuring consistency in their terminology in-language. Much more efficient than having to keep a separate brand document that both translators and clients need to keep referring to when they write and proofread.

Another request we encountered quite often in our business that was quite time-consuming was for transcription and subtitling. This is a very work-intensive process and we knew there had to be a way to do it better, which led to the creation of SCRIBE. SCRIBE is an AI-powered platform that quickly and accurately transcribes, subtitles, and translates audio and video files, saving us, and our clients, hours of tedious work.

Through the Kaizen philosophy, we have been able to uplevel our business, providing better and more efficient services for our clients, saving them time, while also delivering the quality and consistency they need.

The Evolution of Kaizen

The Kaizen approach was initially identified as a way to continuously improve a production system but has evolved into a business philosophy that lends itself to so much more than just lean manufacturing.

However, in recent years, the approach has been criticised for being too focused on the granular level, prioritising short-term improvement over long-term enterprise-wide success. Some also believe that it’s no longer innovative enough with the rapid pace of technological change, which could lead to Japanese businesses struggling to compete in the long run with Western companies empowered by the latest technical and digital innovations.

While there’s no doubt that the Japanese economy has struggled in recent years with its aging population, its economy is still the third largest economy in the world, with low inflation. Their currency is up, their banks are stable, and with several nuclear plants being brought online, their energy costs are low.

Maybe a more holistic view of Kaizen is at play that is more than an approach to business, but an approach to economic, political, and even social life, in Japan. Tourism is increasing, their stock market is growing, and their investment opportunities are still experiencing slow but steady growth. It appears as though the Kaizen philosophy is still beneficial to Japanese business and culture as a whole.

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